Friday, November 7, 2008

You don't have to be smart to search here ...

... but it helps. 

I'm prompted to write this post by a throwaway remark from David McCoy, in a post on election statistics: "You don’t have to be smart to search nowadays - all you have to do is enter the key snippet."

Ah, but how do you find the key snippet? 

My son had a school essay to write comparing two films, so we thought it would be worth looking on the internet to find some analysis. But if you just search for the names of the films, you just get endless cinema listings and DVD sales, plus a few fairly superficial newspaper cuttings. 

So we tried another tack. Who are the key figures (film theory, media studies, sociology) that might be name-dropped in a serious essay? 

Let's start with Lacan. When we added "Lacan" to the name of one of the films, the search engine suddenly unearthed an entirely different set of web pages, including a bunch of blogs apparently created as part of a high school project (sixth-form) and talking about a set of related films including the two we were interested in. Could we have found these blogs any other way? 

Okay I admit it, my son hasn't read Lacan, hadn't even heard of him, but he had a bit of parental help. The point I'm making here is that sometimes the more knowledge you can put into the search, the more useful the results. 

Even Microsoft sometimes misses important stuff when it searches the internet - for example when checking a brand name. See my post on Google and Longhorn.

Internet search looks rather like a P v NP problem. It's fine for checking unoriginality: for example, if the teacher suspects a student of plagiarism, she can put a suspiciously well-phrased sentence into an internet search engine and confirm that the sentence is not original. It is also fine for finding well-structured material: if you want to check Missouri voting statistics, you can probably find something relevant. (See Missouri loses bellwether status, November 2008.) 

But if you want to find an unusual thought, you will have to find an unusual combination of search terms. You do have to be smart to search here.


Update March 2023

What I described in this post is now known as prompt engineering. The importance of this has become much more apparent since the emergence of AI tools such as Dall-E and ChatGPT. See James Bridle, The Stupidity of AI (Guardian, 16 March 2023). (The Wikipedia entry on prompt engineering was created in October 2021.)

Meanwhile while there are now automated tools to help teachers detect basic plagiarism, these are not much use against students who try to cheat using AI tools. See my post on Reasoning with the majority - chatGPT (January 2023).

Which develops a view of the limitations of Google I have talked about elsewhere: Thinking with the majority (March 2009)

1 comment:

  1. I love the Lucas rhyme you left on my blog. To be smart in my original sense means that (a) I know the full details of what I want to search for and (b) I know where to find it. In fact, I don't have to know but a very few details and I only have to know approximately where to find it. Your blog posting seems to support this.

    My view of searching does require brain activity, but it is not the same level of "smarts" as offered by an expert in the field. My view is more that of "the detective" chasing down a few wild hunches. In the Missouri example, I only had a few snippets of text. That was all I needed. I knew nothing about the full context, but I did know enough to mine the most likely associated text in Google. Sure, that’s a level of smart searching, but it’s highly hit-and-miss, and artificial versus the domain expert’s approach. I would prefer to call that “cunning.” In my approach, I knew that the proper noun “Missouri,” and the verb “winning” and the preposition “without” would get me close enough. That same, rough template would apply in many cases.

    So, in effect, we are both right - it just comes down to the meaning of "smart." I believe searching can be accomplished with a lower degree of domain specific knowledge, and a reasonable degree of language parsing to find the key phrases that you need - cunning. Templates and frames can substitute for domain expertise in searches, I believe. Is that smart? Well, sure… I would never admit to being a dumb searcher, just a cunning one. It’s just a different kind of smart. Now, in reality, how many of us search without some implicit domain knowledge? Your example of adding “Lucan” to the search terms is a very good example of domain knowledge, but also of speculative, cunning search that I discuss.

    Word meaning again...